"When rejection means success, or
when culture’s gods fail"
23 May 1999
Text: Luke 4:18-19, 43-45
Rejection can be an indication of success, rather than failure. Startling? Yes, but true. If we are going to be effective as bold witnesses, we will have to learn how to cope with rejection. We cannot let rejection discourage, or defeat us for two chief reasons. First, recollect with me that Jesus was known as a man of sorrows, who was acquainted with grief. Isaiah 53.3 begins:
"He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief."
If we consider the audience reaction in Nazareth, His hometown crowd, it is described for us in vv. 28-29: "All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up and drove him out of town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him down the cliff." I would say that what we have here is a strongly negative reaction. It is hard to imagine a more expressive statement of complete rejection. And this for the world’s greatest preacher whose sermons are still talked about some two thousand years after their delivery!
The gospel tickles no ears. The truth is no respecter of person. So rejection suggests that Jesus’ illustrations had found their mark as they do to this day! His preaching was relevant, to say the least. But why were these worshippers so angry? May I suggest that they were angry because their religious culture had so distorted reality that Jesus’ presentation of the truth was like a slap in the face. Not that he was intentionally offensive, far from it, He merely exposed the untruth of certain religious assumptions, or expectations, that 1st century Jews had grown tremendously comfortable with. Let’s see if we can’t expose some of those expectations:
But we should be clear about one thing: it is always the case that human culture distorts reality. At the very best human culture may approximate the truth, but most commonly human culture hinders access to the truth and enshrines various man-made lies as ultimate truth.
For example, Jesus’ origin was humble. His parents were "anawim," they were the "pious poor." They were not merely socially marginalized, as in destitute, they were those afflicted for righteousness sake. (See 2 Samuel 22:28; Pss. 14:6, 22:24, 25:16, 34:6, 40:17, 69:29 and Amos 8:4.) The poor that Jesus proclaimed good news to were the humble folk who, nevertheless, were spiritually awake and aware. These are the poor that God promises to exalt. God looked right past their "commonness" and saw their heart to serve Him. But these same "anawim" were held in contempt by their wealthier, and better established social counterparts in Nazareth and Jerusalem. The "pious poor" are the poor of the beatitudes (see Luke 6: 20-23). We are not talking here about the homeless and down-and-outers who populate today’s cities! So, social prejudice prevented the Jews in Nazareth for receiving that Jesus could indeed be who He said that He was: the Messiah! It is openness to God that is at stake here, not one’ socio-economic status. Therefore, those who knew their spiritual poverty would receive Jesus’ proclamation of "release, the recovery of sight, the year of the Lord’s Jubilee."
As to the second religious expectation, that of most favored status, Jesus plainly implies that they, being unbelieving Jews, would discover too late that their opportunity for blessing had passed them by. They would find that what was offered to them would not be deferred, or delayed, but would be offered to others is they rejected Him and His free offer of salvation. Please remember, the offer of salvation is free and not salvation itself. Nothing is more costly than the price that was paid for us!
Thirdly, there is an implied rejection here of the religiosity of the day. Frankly, it pricked their pride to hear that they were like the generation of Elijah and Elisha’s day, a time which they would agree was marked by apostasy, unbelief and religious error. The only beneficiaries that Jesus names here are Gentiles. You bet they were frosted! A regal messiah, divine favor and assumed approval of their religious forms were the gods of their religious culture and, in the face of the genuine article, true God of true God, these gods failed them.
What we need to draw as a lesson here is simple: we need sound, biblical, that is, truthful teaching to help us overcome the distortion and bias which seeps in through our culture. It may be hard to take, but it is necessary to health spiritually, religiously and intellectually. At lest we feel too smug about the discomforting that the good folk of Nazareth felt that Sabbath day, it might be helpful to point out that we have our own cultural gods that cloud the way to truth, that twist and distort reality.
We live in the twilight years of culture dominated by an unholy trinity: science, economics and technology. Let’s call them SET. The coming of the information revolution has somewhat unseated these three, but others would simply assert that all that’s happened is these three have been booted up into cyberspace. These three cultural gods, SET, have created a massive, anti-scriptural and potentially fatal illusion. SET supports the contention that man can make it on his own, that the culmination of secular, redemptive history is at hand, and that wealth will inundate the whole earth. Weeping, want and toil will be no more! Remember, "It’s the economy, stupid." Science was made absolute, or high god during the Renaissance and as such "fathered" an all-sufficient technology which promised to bring us a solid, needs meeting materialistic salvation! Mankind must have bliss here and now. It signifies the ideological triumph of the sensible and tangible! The disciples of this new religion, with its wide and varied priesthood consisting of scientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists, industrialists and their political lackeys , viewed all other religions, especially Christianity and Judaism, as superstitious and hopelessly backward, gathered at the industrial revolution and the spirit of capitalism was poured out and, bingo, we become born-again consumers. How easily we could shuck the past, the dead hand of morality and tradition. The old man, worker, serf and peasant, becomes a thing of the past along with thrift, saving and debt-free living as we soar into the new millennium of lotteries, cradle to grave health care and state-managed education all for the global economy and everlasting, ever expanding consumption. Whee! As consumers we now live, move and have our being! The elite of experts, a plethora of opinionated gurus and professionals, inform us that we have no need of God. They suggest that divine reason took on flesh in the scientific-technological conquest of the natural world—but there are still a few glitches in the system like earthquakes, tornado’s, hurricanes and, a remarkable resilient, but perverse human nature, which an unbiased mind would simply describe as sinful, that simple refuses to submit to rational control and to "get with the program." All in due time. Prosperity is destiny, the invisible hand of global economics will cause wealth to trickle down to all nations!
But the train of inevitable and optimistic progress has slammed into some intractable problems: several world wars, the nuclear age, pollution, new plagues, the costs of convenience in energy, waste management and eco-disasters—to name a few. The train has been slowed down, some passengers are beginning to doubt progress’ inevitability. The wall around modernity has been breached. Our life-styles, though boisterous and liberated, are insufficient evasions of the fact that we still age, we still die. The hope of unlimited economic expansion is dimmed by widespread recessions as our various projects bang into the limits of creation itself. The train has now sustained some serious damage. The secular gods delivered much, but not all of it was either good, or survivable. Warfare continues, there are genocidal outbreaks around the world and the politics of distraction can barely keep us from admitting that all is not well. . .a profoundly negative, nihilistic outlook threatens to undo the whole project. Sweet reason seems more and more a rarity as everything is reduced to savage politics and brute repression by courts, and the powers that be. We been to collect evidence that the train of progress has been derailed and its time to disembark. It looks more and more as if we have less and less to live for, but we can get there quicker. We learn, late in the day, that the experts may not have known as much as they claimed to know and we do not like the mess we are in very much. As we stand beside the train wreck of the humanistic project, we have the eerie sense of having been here before. The brave, new world of SET is now revealed to be the fallen world, helpless and hopeless, and its citizens are desperately in need of soul repair, in need of a redeemer sent from God to deliver us out of all our oppression.
There may not be much hope for unbelievers, for the secular planners of man’s totally socialized, one world environment, but for those that love the Lord, there is great hope! Our oppressive circumstances are rapidly transforming us into the kind of poor for whom Jesus came! There is hope that as the cultural gods die that the one true God will re-emerge with greater clarity and significance. There is hope that people will turn from idolatrous practices such as depending on science, economics and technology. There is hope that in our brokenness, we may re-discover the God who is our healer. And true justice will break forth when sham justice is abolished. But how?
This, of course, is the theme of Isaiah 58. The brief answer is: we find healing by returning to God. Further we relearn that justice and mercy are more to the point than consumption, comfort and economic well being. We find that worship, that Sabbath-keeping, is inseparable from social justice. But we cannot worship a just God and persist in godlessness, or in our injustice! He will not receive it. If we are hard-hearted towards one another, the heavens turn to stone and our prayers are unheard. Merciful acts, sharing with those in need, sheltering those who are without cover, keeping our family obligations with honor and reverence . . . these things will transform us into "light/" Then, v.8b, "our healing will appear." Our righteousness will precede us and the glory of God will be our rear guard. If we repent of our consumptive obsessions, if we refuse to please ourselves and love one another, if we delight in the Lord, we will find joy in our God! If we are sincerely obeying Him, we shall enter the fullness of our inheritance, now and forever. Rewards imperishable will be ours long after all this "presentness" has ceased to be! So, those who set their stock on heaven do indeed prove most "useful" now because their worship is pure and spiritual. Such worshippers, we know, the Lord seeks and they were never more needed than now. Those who worship the Lord shall worship Him in Spirit and in truth.
Well, we began with the subject of rejection and to that we now return. If we take our stand on the truth, even as expounded above, we shall experience rejection. Furthermore, if we are to faithful to our God, we will have some rejecting to do. We must reject the cultural gods that have come to captivate our imagination. It’s not that we do not need science, economics and technology, far from it, what we need is though is SET redeemed. We need science redeemed by thoughtful reformulation as a discipline within the framework of God’s purposes and intents. We need economics that serve the justice and mercy demanded by our God. We need technology that is constrained by wisdom and truth—not all that we can do qualifies as what we should do! And those who will accomplish that work will be those whose hearts have been transformed, in spite of rejection, by the gospel of Jesus Christ!